Boise & Garden City

Garden City created zoning to protect Boise River access. Now it may be repealed.

Along the Boise River, Garden City is growing.

The area is ripe for development: New projects, such as restaurants and condominiums, have become commonplace along the Boise River Greenbelt.

In the midst of that growth, Garden City wanted to promote “best use” development while also making sure public access to the river wasn’t disrupted. In February 2018, the city put into effect a zoning overlay — a special zone where new provisions apply in addition to base zoning requirements — on all parcels of land adjacent to the river and the Boise River Greenbelt.

It created several strict standards for properties within the overlay, including requiring “native trees, shrubs or other plants adapted for survival and growth in the river environment” to be the predominant landscaping and additional setbacks from “critical habitat areas,” such as those for eagle nests.

The actual result, however, has been a headache for those who own land along the river. It can be difficult for landowners to follow the requirements laid out, such as a rule that parcels must have a 50 percent tree canopy within 10 years. In response, the City Council will consider Monday whether to repeal the overlay and start over.

Garden City Mayor John Evans says the overlay governs too much land, including parcels that stretch from the river to major city roads.

“We just didn’t get it right,” Evans said.

Some problems could be easily addressed, according to a city report. For instance, the City Council could clarify how to apply the 50 percent canopy rule.

There are several more complex issues, however, such as whether setback requirements make sense and whether the ordinance applies to every property adjacent to the river.

Recommended changes from the city’s Development Services Department include clarifying the canopy rules and clarifying when a master site plan would be required for those looking to develop along the river.

In written testimony submitted to Garden City’s development services department, Patrick Boel, director of construction at LocalConstruct, wrote on behalf of a land owner that the company supports the potential change to the canopy rule. Jason Densmer, principal at Eagle development group The Land Group, wrote that he too supported the recommendation to clarify the canopy requirements.

Wendy Carver-Herbert, who lives in a house next to a property in the overlay, said many people didn’t understand that the overlay would run the length of the river when it was created.

“I think there is a good reason it was originally put in place, but it needs some changes,” she said. The overlay doesn’t affect her property, but there is an empty property she does not own next to her house that is in it and could be affected by the zoning.

Garden City Development Services Director Jenah Thornborrow said that during a March neighborhood meeting, many felt the overlay could be more refined.

“The big question the community had really was whether it should apply to every property adjacent to the river or if areas should be excluded,” Thornborrow said.

Hannah Ball, founder of Urban Land Development, said the overlay renders two parcels she has “unbuildable.”

The two parcels in question, which are on Carr Street, are small lots. That, combined with the overlay, creates what she calls a “hardship” because she can’t do anything with them.

“I think the intent to promote development was there, and then the overlay did just the opposite,” Ball said. “In one word, I would say it’s counteractive to what the city wanted to create.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided the city with recommendations to foster conservation in the area even if the overlay is repealed.

The recommendations include preventing the further development of structures within the floodplain, avoiding further loss of cottonwood habitat and existing wetlands, and avoiding “adverse impacts” for bald eagles and nesting waterbirds.

Cottonwood clusters provide habitat for migratory birds, which are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service said, while reducing the size of wetlands can go against the Clean Water Act and the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act.

The city has also received comments from the public against repealing the overlay. Several concerns lie with the canopy requirements, including that “choosing to address the canopy without fully addressing the entire ordinance first leaves the community vulnerable to undesirable development,” according to one city report.

If the City Council votes to repeal the ordinance on Monday, the repeal will go into effect immediately and properties along the river would only be subjected to the base zoning requirements. Projects with applications submitted prior to the appeal would be bound by it, Thornborrow said, but it is possible to have the project looked at again if the overlay is a concern.

The council also could opt to amend the overlay, although Thornborrow said it could take at least three months to carry out those changes because of public-notice requirements. A new overlay would take at least six months.

Either way, the council plans to work with a group of experts on changes.

“I think a group of people coming to the table, developers, neighbors, would be great,” Carver-Herbert said.

The Monday meeting will be at 6 p.m. at the Garden City Hall Council Chambers at 6015 Glenwood.

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Hayley covers local government for the Idaho Statesman with a primary focus on Boise. Previously, she worked for the Salisbury Daily Times, the Hartford Courant, the Denver Post and McClatchy’s D.C. bureau. Hayley graduated from Ohio University with degrees in journalism and political science.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.